Ian Stannard is as low key, down-to-earth and unexotic, at least to the British palate, as the export quality fish and chips they serve along the tourist strip in Mallorca. The marketeers have tried lately to mythologise him, to turn him into something quirky, spirited and edgy. Much like Wiggins’ new kit, which has the much-copied Mod RAF roundel embroidered in the detail wherever you care to look, so Rapha has taken to sewing the logo “Merci Essex” onto Stannard’s kit, in an effort to bestow ‘character’.
The problem is that Stannard doesn’t really get the association.
Yes, he was born in Essex (for Rouleur’s international readership, Essex is a part of England famous for chancers, spivs, flash bastards and lovable rogues), but he grew up in Milton Keynes, a quietly anonymous, unremarkable and unpretentious strip of England; a new town caught somewhere between the flatlands of East Anglia and the rolling countryside of the Midlands. It’s somewhere and nowhere, really. It’s hard to make Milton Keynes mythical; a nightmare for Rapha’s aspirational image-makers.
"Hard-man" in full flight, Omloop Het Niewsblad 2015
You suspect that young Ian Stannard was never really in danger of going off the rails. “My parents weren’t cyclists. They didn’t know anything about it. My Mum works for the council in Planning Enforcement and my Dad’s a policeman. Transport police – toy police, or whatever they call them.”
But the “hard man” thing? I think there’s some truth in that, for sure. He tells me, with a matter-of-factness I find astonishing, that he was not yet ten years old when he started competing in triathlons.
Triathlons for under-tens!
I imagine a load of tiny kids lined up in some godforsaken Buckinghamshire municipal mudbath, knees knocking, and parents hollering encouragement. Jesus.
“Is that even legal?”
“I don’t know,” Stannard grins. “You wouldn’t think so, would you? They’re bloody nutters!”
He finished third in his first ever race, and won many others, too. The bike leg was his strong suit, and bit-by-bit he dropped the swimming and running. A young career in cycling went its familiar course; he got better and better.
As a junior, he adored the blokish camaraderie of competition, rather than the bookish culture of the sport. Yes, he might have known who Eddy Merckx was. (“I know more than Edvald. I’m not as bad as him” – a playful dig at the famously innocent Boasson Hagen and his lack of cycling knowledge.) But he didn’t exactly soak it up like a sponge. It wasn’t until he saw a picture of Johan Museeuw in a magazine that he sat up and started to take notice.
“I saw a picture of him racing Paris-Roubaix. Caked in dirt. That was the year [Servais] Knaven won. It really took my imagination. Just ‘cos it looked hard and brutal.” It was 2001.
Belgium: you gotta love it
At the same time, he was taken abroad to race in Belgium at weekends. Those trips sealed the deal. He fell for the Classics. “The racing was far better than the UK. It suited me down to the ground. It was where I started to realise I wanted to be a pro. I wanted to race hard in Belgium. I really became aware of the Belgian classics. They’re just hard races, aren’t they? They just kind of rip themselves apart. I didn’t win any bunch sprints: it was more like breaking off the front in little groups. I’d win a sprint from three or four. I loved it.
“Those trips were brilliant; far better than going into Milton Keynes for the weekend. Your parents dropped you at a motorway junction and this old boy took you off to Belgium bike racing. €30 or something it used to cost.”
A brief flirtation with a career as a plumber (if indeed you can flirt with plumbing) ended abruptly when he secured a summer’s riding in Holland. He was just 16 years of age, and he loved it.
“It might sound arrogant saying it, but deep down I knew I could make it. And I wanted to prove to myself I could make it. It’s only now when I look back that I think, bloody hell, if I hadn’t made it, what would I be doing now?” Plumbing probably.
Rabobank Continental asked him to sign. That in turn led to a dilemma. British Cycling’s Academy wanted Stannard to join up full-time. This would mean lots of track and lots of Manchester, while a sizeable part of Ian Stannard’s sizeable frame wanted lots of road and lots of Belgium. What to do?
“There was a conflict. Deep down, I wanted to be a road rider in Belgium. And then there was the Academy. You could see Rod Ellingworth’s work ethic, and how all those guys were going, but it was very track orientated. I was a bit hesitant.
“I remember driving up to Manchester with my Mum, to drop me off at Manchester Velodrome. But even driving up there, I’m thinking: ‘Jesus Christ. Am I making the right decision?’ The whole journey I could have turned around at any point.”
History will judge that decision favourably. After a year on the track, he refocused his sights and started to churn through the gears of a professional career on the road; first as a stagiaire with T-Mobile. When they bust apart, and Highroad was born, he didn’t survive the cull. Dave Brailsford used his connections to sort Stannard out with a ride for Landbouwkrediet. This wasn’t necessarily an ideal move.
On the one hand, living in a mouse-infested empty shell of a hostel, virtually alone, was a wholesome toughening up. The only companions he had were the odd “randomers” who dropped in for a night or two. On the other hand, the fact that he received not a scrap of guidance meant that he had to live on his wits. “The problem with a team like that it that everybody is on their own. It’s all very cut-throat. They don’t want to give their secrets away.”
The opportunities to race were exceptional, however, given that he was riding for a Belgian team. In 2008, as a neo-pro, he rode The Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix all in one week.
“Flanders was the first Classic that I rode. I was absolutely scared shitless. It’s just up another level, isn’t it? The crowds are up another level. You’re riding along the cobbled streets of Bruges from the bus to the signing on, then you come into the square in Bruges, and you ride up the ramp, and you’re above everyone, and you see how many people there are. Jesus Christ! Just the size of the crowds. That suddenly hit me.
“Or two days before, riding along sections of the course and there’s people tidying their gardens up, because they’re going to be on TV. All these little bits start clicking into place. Jesus Christ, this is massive! This is really massive. It’s a national thing, innit?
“All the best riders are there. Everyone wants to win that race. It’s big in every sense. I just wanted to finish, really. That was my ambition.
“Halfway round my bike broke. I got on a spare that was about half the size of my regular bike. I managed to get back into the main group and finished.”
And in Roubaix?
“Roubaix’s a bit of a smaller scale. It’s only when you get closer to Flanders, and the Roubaix velodrome, when the Belgian fans come to the cobbled sectors that it really gets bigger. Carrefour de L’Arbre? I think that was the last year they allowed drinking on there. I remember all the barbecues, the smell of alcohol, spectators trying to hand out beer glasses and stuff. All these people. Absolutely bonkers. And then entering the velodrome, and it’s almost peace. I made it. I’m there.”
This is almost word for word the same sensation as Roger Hammond had described to me last year, when talking about his third place in the 2004 Paris-Roubaix. What Hammond would have been unaware of, as he rode into the velodrome on the wheel of Fabian Cancellara, is that he was being watched by Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, sitting in the stands. They had just ridden the junior race, and had finished in first and second places. That day Stannard knew for certain what his primary career goal would be; the one he’s focusing very narrowly on now.
“I just need to make sure I’m the first Brit to win Roubaix.
First Brit to win Roubaix? Wiggins may have other ideas...
“No disrespect to anyone who’s won Flanders, because fucking hell, everyone wants to win it, don’t they? I’d be fully made up if I could win that thing. But, really, personally, I want to win Roubaix.
“It just kills your body. There’s a real hard element to it. The whole day is consistently hard. With Flanders the races shuts down and then starts up over and over. But Roubaix never shuts down. I just think it’s a harder race.”
Extract from issue 37